ARLINGTON, Texas — It’s a good thing that back in 2016, Merrill Kelly stepped away to the bathroom during lunch at an American restaurant in Incheon, South Korea.
Kelly had just announced to his agent, Adam Karon; his wife, Bre; and his brother Reid that after two years of pitching in South Korea, he had reached his limit. He wanted to return to affiliated baseball in North America, even if it meant taking a minor-league deal.
After Kelly left the table, his agent turned to the right-hander’s wife and brother and delivered a blunt message.
“Do not let him do that,” Karon said.
Karon knew that by staying in South Korea, Kelly could make far more money than he would on a minor-league deal. Kelly reluctantly agreed and remained overseas, but not a day would pass without him thinking about eventually reaching the majors. He even envisioned himself sitting at the podium in the interview room after a postseason game, talking to reporters.
Dominating a World Series game?
“I dreamt of it,” Kelly told me in his postgame interview on Fox. “But I think at that point, that was all it was, a dream.”
Merrill Kelly had the performance of his life tonight in Game 2 of the #WorldSeries
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 29, 2023
On Saturday night, his dream finally became reality.
Kelly, 35, took the mound with the Arizona Diamondbacks reeling from their crushing 6-5 loss to the Rangers in Game 1 of the World Series. All he did was allow three hits, two on soft contact, one on a home run the Texas Rangers’ Mitch Garver said was the lowest pitch he had ever hit for a homer.
Only eight other pitchers in Series history produced the combination of statistics Kelly did in Game 2 — seven innings, nine strikeouts, zero walks. The Diamondbacks, with their 9-1 victory, evened the series at one game each.
Karon, Bre and Reid were all in attendance, along with a number of Kelly’s other relatives, including his father, Tom, who lives in Brownsville, Texas; and his mother, Cheryl, and grandmother June, both of whom live in Beaumont. Kelly said he had not seen his grandmother since 2011.
Two days before, at World Series workout day, he again shared his back story. How he never threw hard, never was a top prospect, just an eighth-round pick by the Rays in 2010. How he went to the KBO League out of frustration after the Rays did not protect him on their 40-man roster in 2014 and no other club selected him in the Rule 5 draft. How his career might have turned out differently if not for his fateful bathroom break in South Korea.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Karon said. “The difference between Merrill and most guys is that he was smart enough to understand and tough enough to grind it out in Korea until he had an opportunity to return on a major-league contract.”
Off the field, Kelly said he is so unassuming and laid-back, Bre sometimes gets upset with him, thinking he doesn’t care about anything. But Mark DeRosa, Kelly’s manager with Team USA in the World Baseball Classic last March, said the pitcher actually carries a massive chip on his shoulder because his journey was filled with doubters, “all except himself.”
Kelly wound up staying two more seasons in South Korea. After the first, he thought maybe he could secure a major-league deal. The problem was, his contract with his team, SK Wyverns, already had vested and he could not get out of the agreement.
“That was another speed bump I had to press through,” Kelly said. “Going back there in ‘18, knowing I could be here, that was something I also had to block out. In ‘18, we won the championship and then I came back (to the U.S.).
“I could have easily been complacent, just said, I’m going to stay over here as long as I can, not try to get any better, just ride what I had. But in my mind, that wasn’t an option. That wasn’t good enough.”
The Diamondbacks first contacted Kelly on the day he became a free agent, Dec. 1, 2018. As luck would have it, it also was his wedding day.
Kelly initially had two teams in mind, the San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox, but the Diamondbacks were a natural fit for a kid who grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., and attended Arizona State. They also were the only team to offer him a two-year contract. The guarantee was for $5.5 million, and the deal included club options for 2021 and 2022. Kelly since has signed another two-year deal worth $18 million, with a club option for 2025.
In his postgame interview on Fox, Kelly took time to thank the Diamondbacks, saying, “I appreciate them a lot for giving me this opportunity.” But to be sure, the Diamondbacks also have benefited from the relationship. In Kelly’s four full seasons, he has averaged 31 starts and 180 innings. Including the shortened 2020 season, his career ERA is 3.80.
This postseason, Kelly is emerging as something more, a genuine star.
“The recognition Merrill’s getting is late but at the same time very well-deserved,” Diamondbacks ace Zac Gallen said. “I’ve been kind of saying he’s the most underrated pitcher in baseball. How it’s gone that way this long, I think it’s the market we play in. But the guy posts. And when he does, you see what it is.”
In the Division Series, Kelly threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings for his first career win against the Dodgers. In the National League Championship Series, he had a rocky start against the Phillies in Game 2, but allowed only one run in five innings with the Diamondbacks facing elimination in Game 6.
Kelly being Kelly, he wanted to pitch deeper into the game, which the Diamondbacks won, 5-1.
Looks like Merrill Kelly may be coming out of the game and he doesn’t look happy about it pic.twitter.com/dMue8Lbp7b
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) October 23, 2023
Diamondbacks manger Torey Lovullo described the situation that night as “very awkward.” Kelly carried a heavy workload this season, starting with the WBC. Lovullo knew that, and also knew Kelly doesn’t like to come out of games in the middle of innings. But when he pulled Kelly after 90 pitches at the conclusion of the fifth, the pitcher stormed off. Moments later, Lovullo heard crashing noises — “bam! bam! bam!” — in the tunnel off the dugout.
Sensing trouble, Lovullo said he went into the tunnel, missing a base hit by Alek Thomas in the process.
“What are you doing, man? What do you want?” Lovullo asked.
“Just tell me why. Just tell me why,” Kelly replied.
Lovullo explained his reasoning. Kelly listened, then went to shake his manager’s hand. Lovullo gave him a hug instead, defusing any tension.
“You’ve got to tell Merrill why, you’ve got to tell him what’s on your mind,” Lovullo said. “If there’s buy-in, he’ll accept it. If not, he’ll continue to hammer away at you.”
Saturday night, there was no such disagreement, even though Kelly struck out five of his last six hitters and ended up throwing one fewer pitch than he did against the Phillies.
His final pitch was a 3-2 front-door sinker that caught Jonah Heim looking. Diamondbacks third baseman Evan Longoria viewed the courage it took for Kelly to throw that pitch as proof the veteran had full command of his stuff. But during that at-bat, Kelly said he was spraying his fastball arm-side, unable to control it the way he did earlier.
Lovullo told reporters afterward that he felt Kelly was getting fatigued. But Kelly explained in his Fox interview that he was proactive with Lovullo, saying, “I actually went to him.” No argument was necessary. He knew he was done.
Kelly has had bigger strikeout games this season than he did Saturday night — 12 against the Reds on Aug. 24, 12 again against the Rockies on Sept. 4. But Game 2 will go down as his masterpiece, a career-defining performance.
His repertoire consisted of 22 changeups, 21 cutters and 17 four-seam fastballs, 15 sinkers, 10 sliders and four curves. His command was so good, he had 22 called strikes, including five called third strikes. Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen marveled that hardly any registered complaint.
“When he has the feel of all five or six pitches — I don’t know how many he’s got, what he calls what, but he got on a roll there,” Gallen said. “In spots they were being a little more passive and he was able to stay in attack mode. And in spots where they started to get a little aggressive, he was able to stay on the edges and make them hit his pitch.”
The Rangers were suitably impressed.
“I think we realized the second time through the lineup that we weren’t getting too many pitches to hit,” Garver said. “He executed his stuff and a lot of times, we ran out of barrel.”
Added first baseman Nathaniel Lowe: “He just had it going tonight.”
Diamondbacks pitching coach Brent Strom said the plan was for Kelly to ride his sinker in on righties and use his changeup to thwart lefties. The key, Strom said, was that Kelly got ahead of hitters, something the Diamondbacks failed to do in Game 1, when they issued 10 walks.
“The changeup was excellent,” Strom said. “His changeup is similar to Greinke’s in the sense that the (fastball) velocity is like 92-93 and the changeup is like 89-90. But it has action to it. It’s not a swing-and-miss changeup like you see from (Luis) Castillo or those kind of people. When you see these flyballs to the warning track … it’s just enough to keep you in the yard.”
Kelly’s dominance, and the eruption of the Diamondbacks’ offense, enabled Lovullo to avoid using from his top relievers. The outcome swung home-field advantage to Arizona, and reduced the pressure on rookie righty Brandon Pfaadt in Game 3.
As The Athletic’s Tyler Kepner noted, Kelly was the first pitcher to work seven innings in a World Series game in the 2020s. The last pitchers to do it were Stephen Strasburg (8 1/3 innings) and Gerrit Cole (7 innings twice) in 2019.
When I asked Kelly how he would rate his execution, he said, “That was probably one of the better ones. That was the goal coming in. For me, that’s my whole game. If I execute I’ve got a pretty good chance. If I don’t execute, it’s going to be a long night.”
Saturday wasn’t a long night. It was the kind of night Kelly tried to imagine during his four seasons in South Korea, when he would wake up in the morning, make coffee and, thanks to the time difference, catch some Major League Baseball. He would check in on how his friends with various teams were doing. As he got closer to leaving, he would lock in on clubs he might want to join.
“I think going over to Korea as a 26-year-old is way scarier than pitching in the big leagues or even the World Series, to be honest,” Kelly said. “It felt literally and figuratively miles away when I was over there.”
On Saturday night, he made the miles and years melt away. He was right where he wanted to be.
—The Athletic’s Levi Weaver contributed to this story
(Photo of Merrill Kelly: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)